Bev Oda’s hotel switcheroo

Checking in to the grange St. Paul’s to find out why the minister checked out. Was it the $7 orange juice?

Sean Kilpatrick/CP Images

Lounging in my luxurious standard room at the Grange St. Paul’s Hotel, overlooking London’s most famous cathedral, on expenses at $500-plus a night, I’m thinking: you know what? Life’s not so bad. The global economic crisis continues and the situation in Syria sucks, but I just ordered a chicken Caesar salad on room service for $25 that came with shaved parmesan and pickled anchovies on top. When I finish that I might go for a dip in the pool or treat myself to a chakra-balancing spa facial ($125) or, if I’m feeling really adventurous, upgrade to club service, the hotel’s VIP class that offers access to the executive club lounge with its “dazzling fibre-optic chandeliers” and self-contained bar with “fine wines from our extensive in-house list.” Sure it’s an extra couple of hundred bucks, but I figure, why not? It isn’t like this place is fancy or anything.

In fact, my excitement at the Champagne-stocked mini-bar, Ashtanga yoga classes and 24-hour cocktail lounge can only be put down to my plebian tastes as a jobbing journalist working for a private corporation. If, on the other hand, I happened to be a Canadian cabinet minister spending public funds—let’s just say the one in charge of promoting poverty reduction and international human rights abroad—I imagine this hotel would seem a marked step down from my usual top-dollar digs. I’m sure I’d glide in, glance around the place with its glass elevators, floor-to-ceiling windows, polished granite floors, trendy sushi restaurant and think to myself, “Yuck. I flew business class all the way to London, England, for this?” Indeed, if I was that accustomed to the good life I’d do exactly what Minister Bev Oda did and leave my underlings to sweat it out for the duration of the conference in their “luxury rooms” (each equipped with a king-size bed, high thread-count linens, free WiFi and multimedia hub including an MP3 station and digital satellite TV) and check myself into the Savoy where—phew!—the bartenders in the American Bar at least know to mix a decent dry martini for a politician on expenses. If you don’t believe me, just ask any erstwhile drinking buddy of that famed Savoy regular, Winston Churchill.

Like that great statesman of the 20th century, our own minister of international co-operation, Bev Oda, enjoys publicly trumpeting the importance of international human rights and freedoms while pampering herself like an aristocrat behind closed doors. Unlike Churchill, however, she does not have the minor added distinction of having defeated Hitler and won the Second World War. No matter, right? Tastes are personal, and as Oda pointed out earlier this week, hers are apparently “nothing to be embarrassed about.” Moreover, the $7 fresh-squeezed orange juice she turned up her nose at (in favour of a $16 version at the Savoy) was not that great anyway. Actually that’s a lie. It was amazing. But the point is, who am I to judge?

F. Scott Fitzgerald said the rich are different from you and me, and everybody knows the same generally goes for politicians on expenses. It is perfectly fitting that Oda would have chosen the British capital, of all places, to get fussy about where she chose to hang her hat. This, after all, is a country where MPs have a long and distinguished history of fiddling their expenses. A mere hotel upgrade? Don’t be such a pathetic arriviste, darling! British politicians prefer to misdirect public funds for really fun stuff like castle moats and million-pound London shag pads. True, they all got caught, many were forced to resign, some were even thrown in jail and many had to pay it back in the end, but they had a marvelous time while it lasted.

Likewise, once Oda’s accommodation switch came to light this week—with the detail she rejected the inconceivable $287 conference rate—she immediately reimbursed taxpayers for their part in upping her comfort levels. Though reflecting on it from my plushy room in the five-star hotel the minister so indelicately eschewed, I’m not sure why she bothered. If only the average hard-working, Tory-voting Canadian could see how difficult it must have been for someone like Oda to even consider sleeping in a place so down on its heels it does not count Saudi royalty or movie stars among its regular guests—a typical luxury hotel in the centre of one of the most expensive cities in the world—I’m sure they would support, if not applaud, the honourable minister for her upgrade. What might seem heavenly to the average Canadian is understandably inadequate to an honourable member used to private chauffeurs and a government expense account at her disposal.

Luckily little people like me can still enjoy life’s common pleasures. Now excuse me while I treat myself to a champagne cocktail and an overpriced pedicure. The Canadian taxpayers won’t be paying for it, but I’ll try to enjoy myself anyway.